Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Beauty and Truth

    And St. Augustine issues this challenge: Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky . . . question all these realities. All respond: "See, we are beautiful." Their beauty is a profession [confessio]. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One [Pulcher] who is not subject to change?
Thus the CCC quotes Augustine (32), and this idea is taken up by many writers I am sure. 'Tis not, I think, a panacea for the doubts of skeptics, but it does raise an important point: it draws the conversation about teleology (not having taken philosophy in an organized manner, I'm not 100% sure of terminology; I mean here arguments about causality) into the dimension of beauty. I think the beauty of truth is a fairly key component of "Good"; logical relations of facts (which may be actual or hypothetical) are transformed into Truth, and we call this Good (rather than rational, or 'not illogical').

One point of significance for debate (which is not the most important thing of course), is that the skeptic must not only ground morality (or dismiss it as a myth) but he must also ground our experience of beauty...I think this one is harder to dismiss -- one can say the moral claim [love thy neighbor = good] is false or nonsensical, but one cannot say the "beauty claim" [love thy neighbor = beautiful, in opposition to using/hating thy neighbor] is false, because it is perhaps more obviously subjective. But of course, subjective interior attraction to ethics and nature could be tied to pro-life or pro-societal traits of evolutionary fitness.

If nothing else, though, the believer at least can draw renewed inspiration to turn to the Father with delight, for "all Thy works praise Thee, O Lord" (Ps 145:10)


  1. On the beauty of ethics, read Ross McCullough in April 2011 First Things: 'The Beauty of the Ethical'

  2. Nice quote and comment. Makes me think of both Keats’ “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” – and the famed song by the band Live, “I don't need no proof when it comes to God and truth / I can see the sunset and I perceive / I don't need no one to tell me about heaven / I look at my daughter, and I believe.”

    I have yet to read McCullough’s article, although it caught my eye right away. I will get to it this week, though. Thanks for reminding me.

    As far as beauty as a proof for truth, God, or otherwise, I find this tricky – at least in an apologetic sort of way. The subjectivity you mentioned is paramount to this problem. However, I see it more as proof, confirmation, and encouragement for a believer. I’m not sure I can say to an atheist, “See the beauty of the mountains and believe;” but I can say to my soul, “See the beauty of the mountains and let any doubts be dispelled. Forget your temporary, self-centered anxiety and simply live and love.”

  3. Just read McCullough’s article: simply delightful. It was both insightful and fun. It is perceptive of him to diagnose the moral problem of the age not so much as a rejection of morality – even though, as we’ve argued, the secular humanist has nothing on which to ground his morality; but nevertheless, he believes in it – but as the lack of morality in personal lives. It’s good that morality is a concern of politics; this is potentially promising. But if this reality runs parallel to a world in which individual people do not recognize the moral choices they face everyday – choices that take virtue, patience, and character to instruct correctly – eventually the morality in the political sphere is bound to either disappear or find itself entirely skewed.

    I also loved his attention to the beauty of the ethical. Too often, ethics takes on a commanding tone: you CAN’T do this, or you MUST do that. Both of these cases make morality seem the arbitrary drill sergeant. Instead, the rights and wrongs of ethics are simply reflective of the order and beauty of reality and its Creator.

  4. Right. I had basically the same response to his article. His 'diagnosis' of our current climate was very fresh to my mind, and maybe can help better inform our approaches to dialogue.

    By the way, I've been reading The Well and the Shadows by Chesterton. It's a collection of articles I think from his newspaper days. They're so great: you can read one in a single sitting, and its intellectually stimulating and (mostly) relevant to society today.